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Staying for the Kids: Is a Bad Marriage Better Than No Marriage?

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

Photo credit: Pexels

Sheila and Van had been together since they were in their early 20’s. They got married after dating for four months, and had children together shortly thereafter. Early on in the relationship, Sheila noticed some red flags. She didn’t like the way Van talked to her when he became angry. Later on in their marriage, she began to grow more resentful after she had her third child. He was a hard worker and was fantastic at his job, but expected Sheila to do everything at home since he was the main breadwinner. When she asked for a little extra help here and there with the kids, he acted as though she was asking for something ridiculous. After all, why should he be expected to help her when all she did, in his mind, was stay at home all day?

The resentments between the two began to grow, and the fights became more spontaneous, erratic, and explosive. The children grew older and they noticed the tension between their parents, and all three kids learned how to cope in different ways. Each child felt like they were walking on eggshells, trying to figure out the right thing to say at the right moment in order to keep the peace. But no matter what each of them did or didn’t do, or said or didn’t say, there was never any long-term peace between Sheila and Van.

Sheila felt trapped, financially. She knew she could get a job, and leave, but their standard of living would go down tremendously. And the stories she read online about children who had suffered through a divorce were horrifying to her. Van knew that he was unhappy, and he began talking to other women on the side. He wanted out, but he didn’t want to leave the kids or let his wife have them three days out of the week. They went to counseling, but it wasn’t working. Finally, they just stopped talking to each other and they slept in different rooms. They decided, together, that it was better for the children to stay married than to divorce, but they were just going to have to live separate lives.

How many of us married couples have struggled with this dilemma? How many of us wonder if it’s better off to stay together because we have children together, and we worry about the children’s well-being? We worry about the effects of divorce on children, we worry about our financial stability, we worry about what people will think, we worry about all of the change, we worry about moving into two-bedroom apartments. But how many of us actually worry about what’s really right for the kids? Do we worry about that, or do we just worry about the wrong things?

Nobody can tell someone who is unhappily married what to do. A counselor can help a married couple who truly wants to work through their issues, and who do love each other but are struggling with some unresolved resentments. But can a counselor solve a marriage that is unsolvable, where love has left long ago, and where the children are acting out as a result of the situation they see in their own home?

50% of marriages end in divorce. There is a lot of evidence that people get divorced too quickly, and often for the wrong reasons. They don’t go to counseling, they don’t want to do the work, they have affairs out of boredom, they see a shiny new object and run to it instead of recognizing the value in the object they already have. That being said, a very unhealthy, unhappy marriage can wreak havoc on children. Staying together simply for the sake of “the children” is not a reason to stay together at all. Here’s some things to consider if you find yourself in this predicament.

1. Children deserve to be in a home where they see parents who love each other. Of course, no marriage is perfect, and couples fight. But in healthy marriages, there is an underlying love between two adults that shines through, even in the dark moments. Children notice when their parents don’t love each other, and they take that knowledge into adulthood. A girl might see her father treat her mother terribly, and then see her mother put up with the abuse. She might believe that it’s ok for men to treat women the way she saw her father treat her mother. Children deserve to be loved and they deserve to see parents who love each other. Parents cannot effectively love their children the way they need to be loved if there is unbearable tension in the home.

2. Divorce is damaging and it might set a bad example, but staying in a bad marriage also sets a bad example. If you are staying in a marriage where there is emotional abuse or unresolved resentments that are beyond repairing, then you are teaching your children (inadvertently) a bad example of what marriage is and what it should be like. How are you going to give advice to your children later in life about their love lives? How is a mother who puts up with emotional abuse going to lecture her daughter about the lousy boyfriend she has who yells and hits her? You cannot live by the motto of “do as I say, not as I do,” when it comes to children. Children learn by example, and they will not take you seriously as a guiding force if you don’t live up to your own words. Actions are more powerful.

3. Children care about feeling safe more than they care about having money. Many times, one spouse stays in a bad marriage because of financial reasons. Maybe they haven’t worked in 20 years and they know that if they have to reenter the workforce, their standard of living will decrease dramatically. This terrifies people. We are terrified of moving our children from big, beautiful homes into tiny two-bedroom apartments. We worry about everything. Will they have enough space? What if I can’t buy them the clothes everyone else is wearing? What if I have to move them into a public school? What if..what if…what if? What parents forget is that children don’t care as much about financial concerns as they do about feeling happy, healthy, and safe. Sure, they may whine about not having their big bedroom, but will definitely remember how much less tension there is in the house, how much more laughter there is, how many more happy memories they now have. Sadness is so much more powerful to a child than materialistic concerns. If a child is sad and they feel unsafe in a house, no amount of money can fix that or make them feel safe. Don’t let financial concerns control your decision to get out of an unhealthy marriage. Finances can change. Your children’s well-being is more difficult to manage once it’s already in a dark place.

Deciding to have a divorce is a difficult decision for anyone to have to make. There are so many factors that go into separation, and divorce is difficult for the entire family. If at all possible, a marriage should try to be salvaged. After all, vows were made, and promises were said out loud. Marriage means something. But if you are in a marriage where there is abuse, or anger problems, or unresolved resentment, and counseling has not worked, (or counseling is not an option), then staying together “for the kids” is not a good enough reason to stay married. Children are not as resilient as we think they are, and they pick up on negative, unhealthy behavior from a very young age. If you want your children to be in happy relationships in adulthood, where respect and love are the bonds that hold their own marriages together, then you need to lead by example.

Are you in a bad marriage and counseling hasn’t worked? Are you depressed and wondering if you should stay in the marriage just for the sake of the children? If so, please contact Straight Talk Counseling at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at One of our professional counselors would be happy to speak with you.

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